What makes a house a home?

The best interiors are a genuine reflection of their inhabitants. Here are three homes with real heart

What makes a home? It seems like a simple question, but the answer is a little more complex. In many ways, homes embody how we live and see ourselves. And these spaces evolve when we focus on what makes us happy. This is sometimes easier said than done, though. It requires reflection and thoughtful choices, but it is a rewarding process. When we create a place that meets our needs and expresses our character, we enrich our lives.

When you walk into some homes, they instantly feel welcoming. And it’s not just because you enjoy the company or admire the decor – although both help. There’s something else. The space feels authentic, a genuine reflection of the person or family who lives there.

The traditional way to design a house is from the outside in: starting with the walls and finding ways to fill the structure from a checklist of rooms, furniture and collections. The humanist approach puts a person at the heart of a space. As the designer Ilse Crawford says, we must ask the big questions first. What does our home mean to us? How do we want to feel in it? What do we value? It’s an inside-out approach that considers how we engage with and experience a space.

That’s not to say you need lots of money or status to create a beautiful home. The people on the following pages – based in Italy, the Netherlands and Australia – have different needs and resources but have all created authentic homes where they can enjoy both the simplest and grandest gestures of life. One of them has built the foundations of a home quite quickly because it was important to be surrounded by pieces that had meaning and brought comfort after a move to a new country. Another has found unique solutions for their space precisely because they didn’t have an infinite budget, allowing themselves the luxury of time, slowly adding to their collections over the years – perhaps an item found while on travels or something that was saved for and happily moved from one dwelling to another.

These homes also shine a light on what happens when we focus on what we value – we can create our best spaces.

Katrin Arens: Bergamo, Italy

Ancient and modern: an al fresco lunch with Katrin, Laura and Sofia at the family’s house. The old monastery has previously also been a mill.
Ancient and modern: an al fresco lunch with Katrin, Laura and Sofia at the family’s house. The old monastery has previously also been a mill. Photograph: Chris Warnes

“I was looking for a place where I could live and work, so I had my furniture production in the rooms below,” recalls designer Katrin Arens of her home in a former 15th-century monastery, which later became a mill house, near Bergamo, in the Lombardy region of Italy. She found the abandoned building on the banks of the river Adda when she was pregnant with her eldest daughter, Laura, who is now 18 (her younger daughter, Sofia, is 11).

From the kitchen window Mount Resegone is visible in the distance. “The position of the house is perfect,” Katrin says. It was one of the attractions of the building, as well as the light and the big rooms. However, the site had been abandoned for about 10 years before they moved in. There was no electricity, hot water or heating. Windows were broken and swallows had built nests in the ceiling. While they cleaned out the residence and installed basic necessities, Katrin wanted to keep the place as close to its origins as possible.

Most of the furniture is Katrin’s design, plus a few other pieces that the family have collected on their travels. “I like to have natural colours and white in the house – and allow objects to introduce colour,” she says. “We love travelling and always bring objects back with us. They have to be authentic and they have to tell a story or mean something to me.”

Kitchen confidential: when Katrin moved in there was no water or electricity.
Kitchen confidential: when Katrin moved in there was no water or electricity. Photograph: Chris Warnes

Katrin was born and grew up in Germany (she moved to Italy after winning a scholarship at the Academy of Arts in Bergamo) and it was here that she started to become interested in old furniture. “In Germany, there used to be sperrmüll once a month: people put everything out on the streets in front of their house and big trash vans came early in the morning, picking up everything to throw it away. At night, people were looking with a torch collecting things, such as chairs. I remember I was so fascinated by what other people threw away – sometimes incredible, beautiful things.”

Over the years, the main changes in the house have been to accommodate the needs of the girls: now her atelier has relocated to a nearby village and it is no longer the family’s primary home (they are based in town during the week, to be close to school).

However, they return on weekends and school holidays (when the family is away Katrin gives the house to artists and, as an exchange, they leave a piece of their work). It’s where she likes to cook and entertain, and the girls can enjoy each other’s company. “It’s a great luxury having all this space without anybody living close by,” says Katrin. “We have freedom to do whatever we want – throw parties, listen to loud music – without disturbing anybody around. This house gives me the feeling of home: protection and freedom.”

Kim Baarda: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Going Dutch: Kim in her eclectic, high-ceilinged central Amsterdam apartment.
Going Dutch: Kim in her eclectic, high-ceilinged central Amsterdam apartment. Photograph: Chris Warnes

After 22 years of living overseas, Kim Baarda felt the call of home. “I wanted my sons to experience a slower pace of life, and more of the childhood that Amsterdam could offer us compared with the rushed lifestyle of London,” she says. In 2016, she moved into her apartment with sons David, 12, and Jeffrey, 9. Kim was drawn to the location as it was still quite central, but far enough away from the tourists who flock to the historical centre.

The place had also been renovated and was ready for her to move in. “As we were coming from another country that was a big tick,” says Kim, who was drawn to the high ceilings, open-plan downstairs living and the small garden, which can be hard to find in the city. “It was easy to make it into a cosy home, so we could concentrate on settling into our new life.”

A veteran of moving house, Kim has learned what should take priority when setting up a new home. “I always believe I can make any space into a homely home with the pieces I have collected over the years,” she says. “It is an organic process for me; some things will be replaced with new favourite pieces, but there are core items, such as an antique Dutch 400-year-old linen cupboard which was given to me by a dear friend, that I would love to keep for a long time to come.” Kim says that hanging favourite pieces of art and laying rugs can help to create a sense of home quickly.

Favourite things: old furniture from different eras, including a midcentury modern sideboard and a school desk, sit happily side by side.
Favourite things: old furniture from different eras, including a midcentury modern sideboard and a school desk, sit happily side by side. Photograph: Chris Warnes

She finds the process quite instinctive. “I am very emotional,” Kim says. “So when I love a piece, I am convinced I will find a place for it.” However, she is sensitive to interior decor not working cohesively. “I get very obsessed if something does not look right, which can be even a small vase or some pieces of furniture together,” she says. “I will spend my weekend or evenings rearranging until I feel it works and flows.”

She loves adding splashes of colour and playing with geometric patterns. “I embroider my own cushions, make headboards for my sons’ bedrooms, restore old furniture and bring pieces back to life. For me that gives a personal touch to what would otherwise be just any other home.”

Ultimately, though, her priority is being with her boys. “We are big foodies,” says Kim. She often cooks and bakes with her eldest son, and the family eat at the dining table or outside when the weather is good. It’s even better if family or friends join them as that is her idea of a happy home. “Home is where my family is. I need my favourite furniture and art pieces – and it’s important they have the right space in our home – but above all home will always be a place where I can rest, laugh and spend precious time with my family.”

Caroline Carter: Melbourne, Australia

A fine vintage: a tight budget did not deter Caroline Carter (with children Jett and Lila). Her favourite pieces are the standing lamp and old portraits
A fine vintage: a tight budget did not deter Caroline Carter (with children Jett and Lila). Her favourite pieces are the standing lamp and old portraits Photograph: Chris Warnes

History weaves its way through Caroline Carter’s home in many ways. An unassuming 1970s house on the outskirts of Melbourne, it holds many special memories. The house belonged to her grandmother and it was here that Caroline spent a lot of her childhood. She and her husband, Darren, bought the three-bedroom house a decade ago with a view to creating their own family home for children Jett, 12, and Lila, 5, after Caroline’s grandmother died.

She was attracted to the intimacy of the place. “I really love small, simple houses,” says Caroline. And the smaller home meant that the couple could live within their means, too. They had a tight budget and didn’t want to stretch to structural changes. “I just wanted a really simple white classic look that would work with any interior decoration,” she says. “I like a combination of industrial, rustic and natural elements, but I’m also attracted to modern, simple design.”

Caroline’s love of vintage pieces is one of the defining features of the home. “I’ve always loved to collect, craft and decorate,” she says. About 15 years ago she started collecting vintage pieces seriously and had her own homewares shop. “My taste has changed since then, but my love of vintage hasn’t,” she says. “These days I look for impact. I enjoy making something from nothing.”

Me old china: a collection of tureens – all from France.
Me old china: a collection of tureens – all from France. Photograph: Chris Warnes

Given the size of her collection, editing it regularly is essential. “I might find one new piece that will set the ball rolling,” she says. “I rarely go looking for anything. If it finds me it comes home and I make it work somehow – even if it means changing a room completely.”

Caroline jokes that her family thinks she’s crazy. A common question is: “You want to do what?” But they are used to her rearranging the home, and expeditions to vintage shops, which they also enjoy.

Patience is key for Caroline when it comes to adding layers to her home. The standing lamp in her living room, for instance, was purchased from a dealer in France. “I saved and saved for this piece,” she says. And she’s content to live with Ikea sofas until she can find her dream replacements, even though she’s not certain what they are yet. “I like to take my time and be sure,” she says. The home’s statement pieces, including the lockers and the tureen collection, are her favourites. “I love them and appreciate them so much because I saved so hard for them,” she says.

“To me, home is a feeling. Without love it is just a house. I am lucky to live here, surrounded by my loved ones and beautiful things.”

This is Home by Natalie Walton is published by Hardie Grant on 5 April at £30. To order a copy for £25.50, go to guardianbookshop.com

Natalie Walton

The GuardianTramp

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